The momentum behind opening access to scientific publications got a big boost this week with a directive from the White House for large, federally-funded agencies to make publications and data publicly available. The announcement was made in part in response to a “We the people” petition created last May that has since generated more than 65 thousand signatures. The announcement is, I believe, an important step in the right direction towards making scientific discovery more transparent and easily accessible.
Currently, the vast majority of published research exists behind a very expensive paywall. Publishers charge academic and research institutions a high price for access to their papers, and in return facilitate the peer-review process and the cataloguing and archiving of this research. This relationship between scientists and journals has existed in some form for ages, but as prices for subscriptions creep up and more and more journals are created, the price of maintaining these subscriptions has become prohibitive for many NGOs, consulting agencies, libraries and the public.
Public access to journal articles is increasing with efforts, for example, by Google Scholar to digitize research PDFs. Even Google can be hit or miss though, and many papers just aren’t available. The Public Library of Science (PLOS), is an important open access journal and has led the way in outlining an open publication business plan. Nonetheless the vast majority of research articles are still published in expensive, private journals. This directive from the administration could double the number of articles made public each year .
Why is it important that science is freely accessible? Dr. John Holdren, the author of the announcement, and the President’s Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, laid out the argument well in the memorandum. Making public these data and discoveries will enable companies to capitalize on scientific research, which will then result in innovations useful for the public. As examples he cites open weather data for the forecasting industry and genome sequences which have led to biotech breakthroughs . Holdren also suggests the possibility of new spin-off industries for the curation, preservation, analysis and visualization of this newly publicly available data. I think it’s interesting that his arguments are entirely economic. I’m even more optimistic at the chance for environmental agencies, city and state policy-makers and grassroots movements to be able to draw on the latest scientific knowledge.
Just to be a bit more specific, the memorandum from the President directs federal agencies with more than $100 million of annual, publicly funded research to outline a plan in the next 6 months for making all data and published research open and free to access. Agencies likely to fall under this umbrella include the National Science Foundation, NASA, the Environmental Protection Agency, Defense Department, the Energy Department, and the National Institute of Health . Interestingly, the NIH actually began making its data and findings open access in 2008  and will hopefully serve as a successful model for all of these other agencies.
A few caveats to the policy are getting some critical attention. The first is that research papers likely wouldn’t become freely accessible until the end of a 12 month publication embargo. This is seen, mildly, as a frustrating lag , and, more vehemently from Dr. Michael Eisen for example, as a “massive sellout of public interest to publishers” . While I agree that it’s freely-available cutting-edge research that will most speed further research and development interests, especially in biotech, engineering, and other high-turnover disciplines, even a 12 month embargo before open access seems like a tremendous step in the right direction.
A concern that’s a bit closer to my heart and that I haven’t heard discussed yet is how this new wealth of research will be distilled into useful facts for lay audiences. The pay wall isn’t the only barrier to turning scientific research into innovations and insight useful for the public. As Science Sushi‘s Christie Wilcox more eloquently said, the “Jargon Wall” can be just as insurmountable . (By the way, if any of these topics interest you, read Wilcox’s blog. In my opinion she sets the standard).
We know all too well that even good science, left to stand on its own, can quickly become misrepresented and turn into cannon fodder for political debate. No example illustrates this more clearly than the now infamous shrimp on a treadmill experiment . Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) set in his sights a small facet of an NSF-funded project looking at the physiological response of shrimp to water quality and turned a reasonable experiment on an important topic into a case study of misspent government funds. Free access to all publicly funded projects may enable more misrepresentation of science in the future. Scientists are going to have to get much better about bridging this information gap and informing the public about why their research is important and worth our tax dollars.
Scientists have a credibility problem with the public, and are losing a lot of important public debates to more colorful but less accurate arguments. While making information free and available is a crucial first step, we can’t expect public discourse to become more informed just like that. The scientific community also has to get better about translating their research and bypassing that jargon wall. It’s a challenge, but as I’ve posted here before, social media is a very compelling tool that may provide one answer. This is a theme I’ll be returning to in future posts so please stay tuned.
In sum, President Obama’s directive to make publicly funded research freely available is an exciting step in the right direction to establishing access to science as a public right. This announcement coincides with a bill currently making its way through congress called the Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act (FASTR) which would require open access to all publicly funded research only 6 months after publication. The fate of the bill is uncertain given the political climate, but contact your Representative and Senator and hopefully we can make sure it happens. It is important that everyone have free access to science, but this ease of access also necessitates the next step: distilling that research into useful information. I think scientists are up for the challenge, and we should all be excited that President Obama has opened the door for this first step.